Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Foster care in Michigan: The war against grandparents is on again - and hundreds of children are casualties



The cruelty, the bureaucratic myopia, the stupidity, and the greed are almost unimaginable.

In a senseless quest to force grandparents and other relatives to comply with page after page of hypertechnical licensing rules, nearly 1,800 Michigan children have been thrown out of the homes of those grandparents and other relatives in the year ending September 30, 2009.

That's the single most important revelation among the litany of failures disclosed today in a report released by the independent monitor overseeing the consent decree between the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) and the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" (CR).

Other revelations include confirmation that the state's cuts in funding for prevention and family preservation violate the consent decree (see pages 37 to 40) and the fact that DHS has grossly understated the true extent of abuse in foster care, especially in residential treatment centers – and shows little interest in doing anything about the abuse it does find (see pages 61 to 67).

Court monitors also function as mediators. Their job is to encourage and cajole, so they try to see the glass as half full and use very moderate language. That only makes the findings even more frightening. Especially when it comes to that single biggest revelation – the mass expulsion of children from kinship care.


In its discussion of this issue on pages 78 through 82, the monitor's report doesn't say where the 1,794 children expelled from the homes of relatives went. Some actually may have benefitted – if DHS sent them back to their own parents. But for many of the rest, DHS and CR have added another senseless trauma to their lives.

Everyone in child welfare knows that one of the worst things you can do to a child, after the initial trauma of removal from their parents, is to compound that trauma by moving that child from foster home to foster home. Everyone knows that the trauma is worse if the child is placed with strangers instead of relatives.

As the monitor's report itself puts it:

Children who are removed from their families are at risk of an array of adverse impacts when they are placed in foster care. At times, siblings are split, parental visitation is difficult, children are placed outside of their neighborhoods, and educational stability is compromised. Common sense dictates and research demonstrates that outcomes are better for children who are placed with relatives. Siblings are kept together more frequently; placement stability is better; children remain more often in their schools and neighborhoods; and children visit more frequently with their parents, an important indicator of successful reunification.

But now it's clear that neither DHS nor CR gives a damn about that. On the part of CR the problem is a bureaucratic mindset that understands children only as numbers, not flesh-and-blood human beings, a mindset that values "drawing down" federal money more than love. The people at CR are like the clerk you least want to see when you finally make it to the front of the line at the DMV. At DHS, it reflects pure greed – nothing matters except squeezing more money out of the federal government, to help offset foster care costs.

The number of children forced to move an extra time by this war against grandparents - nearly 1,800 - equals 11 percent of the children in all forms of Michigan foster care on any given day. An extra move forced on up to 11 percent of all foster children in a single year - just to satisfy CR's bureaucratic obsession with licensing.

The monitor's report does not indicate what happened to these 1,800 children. For some of them, this may, in fact, be good news. I hope that some of them simply were returned to their own parents. But that would raise more questions: If a licensing inspector could see that the children could be safely back with their own parents, why couldn't these children's regular caseworker figure it out? How many of these children never needed to be taken in the first place?

And what about the rest of the nearly 1,800 children? Were they placed with other relatives – and, if so, will some of them have to be moved again when the licensing inspector knocks at the door of their new home? Or did they all wind up placed with strangers – placements which the monitor's report itself notes generally are worse for children than placements with relatives.

There is no end in sight. Unless DHS changes course (for what would be the third time on this issue) thousands more children are likely to be kicked out of the homes of loving relatives. The Monitor's report indicates that the proportion of children initially placed with relatives remains about the same. That suggests an endless cycle of churning, as children are placed with grandparents and other relatives, only to have many of them kicked out again when those grandparents can't fulfill all licensing requirements.

NCCPR recommends that all efforts to license relative placements be suspended until DHS can develop a common-sense policy for making exceptions to its draconian licensing regulations, and/or change the regulations themselves.


At issue is a clause in the consent decree that requires all relatives caring for children placed with them by DHS to meet exactly the same cumbersome, bureaucratic licensing requirements as those imposed on total strangers.

Licensing can, indeed, have benefits. It makes the placement potentially eligible for federal aid; and, in turn, DHS must reimburse licensed relatives at the same rates as strangers. And, of course, any foster home, licensed or not, should be required to meet minimum requirements for health and safety (though DHS also should be required to help relatives meet those requirements).

The problem is that Michigan's ten single-spaced pages of foster home licensing requirements are geared more to middle-class creature comforts than basic health and safety. They seem to assume that every foster parent owns her or his own home, with multiple requirements beyond the control of anyone at the mercy of a landlord. There are 41 separate requirements just for bedrooms and their contents, including minimum square footage and size and shape of the windows. There's also a requirement that every dwelling unit on a floor higher than the second have at least two means of egress. Because of that last one, as we've noted before, the apartment in Hawaii where President Obama was raised by his grandmother probably could not have been licensed as a foster home in Michigan.

The problem, of course, is that since the overwhelming majority of children taken from their parents are poor, odds are their grandparents also are going to be poor. So they simply can't afford to meet some of these requirements in those ten single-spaced pages. As long as failing to meet some of the requirements doesn't harm children's health or safety, that shouldn't matter. But thanks to CR and DHS, it matters more than anything – it matters much more than love. And what matters most to CR and DHS is money.


It's not just the emotional trauma that makes the mass expulsion of children from grandparents' homes engineered by DHS and CR so unconscionable – though that is bad enough. Studies show that foster children are less likely to be abused and neglected in the homes of relatives than in stranger care – and less likely to be doped up on potent psychiatric drugs. So, except for those children who may have been returned to their own homes, there is a good chance that CR's licensing obsession actually is making children less safe.

Indeed, CR doesn't even pretend that its primary concern in demanding licensing is safety. Rather, its primary concern is getting the state access to those federal dollars.

As for DHS' motivation, that can be seen in how it chose to comply with this requirement. Instead of hiring 40 full-time licensing workers, they hired 80 "Child Welfare Funding Specialists" and had them work on licensing part time. So clearly, DHS, too, views licensing much more as a money issue than a safety issue.


In October, 2008 DHS issued guidance to frontline workers that virtually prohibited any exceptions to the get-licensed-or-lose-the-children policy. Then, in March, 2009, responding to the concerns of NCCPR and others about precisely this kind of harm to children, DHS commendably issued a memorandum giving caseworkers flexibility to issue waivers to relatives who didn't want to be licensed or couldn't meet all ten pages of requirements, as long as they met basic health and safety standards. But it appears that, in August, 2009, DHS reversed itself again and issued much stricter guidance – guidance that makes it impossible to issue a waiver to a home just because it's safe, healthy, and loving for a child. (See Page 81 of the monitor's report for a list of the requirements.)

While the consent decree is tough on grandparents, there is nothing in it to require DHS to do the obvious when a home can't fulfill all those requirements: Provide help to the relatives, including the necessary financial assistance, to meet the standards. Nor is there any requirement to do what some other states have done – streamline the licensing requirements for relatives and strangers alike, so they truly involve only genuine health and safety issues.

The group that does best in all this is the group that always seems to gain the most by turmoil in Michigan child welfare: the state's powerful private agencies. A footnote on Page 77 of the monitor's report states that the legislature handed out $2.5 million to those agencies to license 1,086 relative homes in FY 2008 and FY 2009. They actually licensed only about 70 percent of the homes – but, because they get partial payment for doing only part of the work, even when the work is unfinished, they spent 100 percent of the money.


What children need most are homes that are safe, healthy, and loving. But to the people at CR and DHS - the ultimate bureaucrats – none of that is nearly as important as the minimum square footage in the bedroom and the shape of the windows.

As we noted in our first report on Michigan child welfare, issued a year ago, the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" doesn't know much about either children or rights. Because if you ask almost any child who is old enough, he'll tell you himself: If mom and dad can't take care of me, I have a right to be raised by grandma and grandpa.

More on what the monitor found in future posts.